THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TEMARA © Duncan Graham 2006
“Temara has always been something of a bad seed. Moody and temperamental she is prone to fits of jealousy...” That’s according to Leif Cocks, an Australian who’s known the testy teenager all her life.
Others, like her close friend Kylie Bullo offer a more generous assessment: “Temara is feisty and intelligent. She’s going through puberty and pushing the boundaries. A bit stubborn and wary of people.”
Sounds like someone you know? If so they’re not qualities that endear or augur well for a loving relationship. But in this case they’re the characteristics which may well keep Temara alive when she moves from Australia to Indonesia, probably in the next two months.
Temara is set to become the first zoo-born Sumatran orang-utan to be released into the wild in a bid to refresh the gene pool. The species – one of our closest biological relatives – is teetering on the edge of extinction.
The transfer will be to the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in South Sumatra. There are only around 50 orang-utans in the park which has the capacity to take 1,000.
The transmigration of 14-year old Temara is an exercise fraught with hazards. Will her hard-wired ancient instincts return to help her adjust to an alien environment where she’ll be battling on her own? Or will she mope, fret and die far from her Western comforts?
She’s spent her lifetime in a metal enclosure, never having to worry about her next lettuce or getting toothache. No forest fires threatened. Her trees were steel frames. Her parents were also born behind bars, so they haven’t been able to whisper the secrets of survival in a rain forest to their daughter.
Could we thrive if suddenly sent back to the Majapahit Kingdom?
Cocks thinks it’s going to work – otherwise he wouldn’t be giving his approval. He’s the curator of exotic mammals at the Perth Zoo in Western Australia and president and founder of the Australian Orang-utan Project (AOP).
With the help of the Perth Zoo the organisation funds security at Bukit Tigapuluh. It has also been rescuing orang-utans who have been taken by poachers and sold as pets, and orphans whose parents have been shot by forest loggers.
Some of these animals have been returned to the wild and many have had problems. In some cases their foster-parents treated them like family, wearing nappies and eating at tables – not the ideal training for a future in the treetops.
Hand-raised orang-utans are known to be mentally inferior to their wild mates. They are also prone to diseases, including hepatitis and malaria.
Keeping them as pets is illegal, but the practice is alleged to continue, with a tame orang-utan a status symbol for any Big Man in the military, government or business. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) claims there are more orang-utans per square kilometre in the gardens of Taipei tycoons than in the wild, and that five or six die for every one that makes it in the concrete jungle.
The last wild orang-utan recorded in the 147,000-hectare Bukit Tigapuluh park was in 1830. The animals now present are all rescued pets and their progeny. Cocks said that so called ‘benign conservation’ – meaning just stopping poachers and loggers – will not work and that parks need to be restocked.
Cocks is confident that threats from guns and chain saws are minimal, that villagers who get income from maintaining the park are supportive, and that it’s time to try and release an animal to boost the park’s breeding program.
“Modern Western zoos have moved dramatically from being a menagerie of curiosities to an agency for conservation,” said Perth Zoo’s chief executive officer Susan Hunt.
“We want to improve understanding of the natural world. We’re involved in research – we’re a shop front for conservation programs. This is a pilot project and if successful more releases into the wild may follow – maybe even a Sumatran tiger.”
So Temara will be flown in a crate from Perth to Jakarta and then trucked or airlifted to Jambi for a staged ‘soft release’. Senior keeper Bullo will stay for three months working with Indonesian rangers to slowly ease the transition from Western Australia to the tropics.
The zoo started breeding orang-utans in 1970. Gestation is around 260 days and getting them to mate is not too difficult. However they have the lowest mammalian reproduction rate – one offspring around every eight years. The big problem is keeping the young alive. Maternal rejection is a serious hazard for creatures born in captivity.
Orang-utans are intelligent and consequently sensitive and prone to stress. They need to be housed and handled with great care, recognising that mental health is as important as physical wellbeing. Most early attempts to keep wild animals in zoos failed.
The Perth Zoo, which got its original animals from a private collection in Malaysia in 1968, seems to have mastered the skills. It claims to have the world’s most successful breeding program with 25 young born in the past 35 years. Seventeen survived infancy.
Part of the secret is in understanding the animal’s psychology and social behavior. Orang-utans can live into their 50s. They’re territorial and tend to prefer their own company. But they also want to know the whereabouts of their colleagues. So the Perth Zoo has attempted to replicate adult female territories. In each enclosure is a tower for the animals to climb and keep an eye on their neighbours.
Orang-utans (a corruption of Orang Hutan – person of the forest) were originally thought to be a species of feral humans. It’s believed that they separated from hominids (the family which includes modern humans) about 10 million years ago.
Although they have 97 per cent of human genetic make up, of all the great apes orang-utans are the least related to humans.
They’re the only members of the great ape family found outside Africa and only in South East Asia. In prehistoric times they lived in the area between north India and Southern China but are now confined to Indonesia.
They thrive on fruit and will eat eggs and insects, but are mainly vegetarians. They’re diurnal and live in trees where they build sleeping nests. There are two types - the Borneo and the longer-haired Sumatran. As the islands have been separate for more than a million years the two are sub-species, but will inter-breed in captivity.
Orang-utans have long arms and are spectacularly agile climbers. They can walk upright but usually prefer to be on all fours. At the Perth Zoo they’re the most popular exhibit.
Although they’re big and strong with males weighing up to 95 kilograms, the animals are shy. They have a reputation for docility towards people and are often photographed cuddling their keepers. King Kongs they are not.
It was once believed they could talk, but being super-smart refused to do so lest they be made to work. They’re unable to speak but have been taught sign language. They have excellent memories and in captivity can use tools.
They’re among the cleverest primates, with an intelligence claimed to be equal to a five-year old human. So theoretically they should be able to program a DVD player, a task that frustrates many adult humans.
Keepers offer these insights:
“Give a screwdriver to a chimpanzee and he’ll throw it at a mate. Give one to a gorilla and he’ll use it to scratch himself. But an orang-utan will use it to escape.
“Give 10 problems to a chimp and he’ll solve six in half an hour – but never solve the other four. An orang-utan will take a week – but solve all ten.”
Comparing an Australian supermarket aisle displaying pet food with a similar shop in Indonesia shows how much our southern neighbors dote on animals.
Aussie stores allocate hectares of shelf space to doggy biscuits, cat meat, bird seed and fish flakes; the Indonesian equivalent may have only a few tins of undersize sardines packed for pussies.
Never kick a dog Down Under. (Or an underdog). People who mistreat pets are often jailed and fined, and suffer the curses of a pitiless public.
There are associations to save seals, conserve whales, rescue bears, rehabilitate wounded wildlife and protect anything and everything endangered, whether feathered, finned or furred, almost anywhere on the planet. Including orang-utans in Indonesia.
Although the AOP only started assisting the Bukit Tigapuluh Park two years ago it will have donated AUD $181,000 (Rp 1.25 billion) by the end of next June. Most of the money has come from concerned individuals, the zoo and the Australian government.
Perth Zoo CEO Susan Hunt said she was negotiating an agreement with the Indonesian government for the zoo to make a long-term commitment to conservation at Bukit Tigapuluh. She hoped this would be in place next year.
“Gone are the days of zoos taking from the wild,” she said. “It’s time to actively participate in animals’ survival, and if necessary their reintroduction into the wild.”
(For more information check www.orangutan.org.au )
(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 August 2006)